Glimpses of What the Mainstream Media Might Have Told Us About Afghanistan

Recently a debate broke out across blogs, think tanks, counterinsurgency advocates, and academics, concerning what is apparently the near total absence of any debate, any questioning, any discussion about why the U.S. (and by implication the rest of us in NATO) should remain in Afghanistan, even less so about why Afghanistan should have been invaded to begin with. (Self-promotional note: that is not true of this blog, where such questioning and critique has been front and center since its inception.) President Obama himself has hardly said anything, even while escalating the war in Afghanistan, even while expanding it into Pakistan at a very severe cost for millions of civilians caught in a war fought by the Pakistani state against its own people. Obama has adopted the war personally, and has cast it as the necessary, good war. In none of Obama’s press conferences has there been discussion of Afghanistan, not even a question from the assembled journalists, certainly no debate. In the meantime the war, as captured by the counterinsurgency (COIN) crowd, sees the various scientists of conquest content to limit themselves to discussion of tactics, weapons, and operations — not logic, rationale, or other concerns of truly critical thinking. For the milbloggers, on the other hand, it is another opportunity for vulgar cheer leading and offering sentimentalist platitudes for the troops, better left for inscriptions on macaroni wreaths fashioned by kids in elementary schools. War in Afghanistan? It goes without question.

One can find a good initial summary about the debate around the need to have a debate, written by Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish (see these items to unpack the debate further: [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] — or check my annotated list). The main protagonists in this debate have been, on the one hand, Professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam veteran who teaches International Relations at Boston University, critical of the U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the general so-called “war on terror.” On the other hand, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, known to some for his writing on his Abu Muqawama blog. Put simply and briefly the argument made by Bacevich was that there has been no real debate, while Exum at first denied this and said some had simply moved on to strategy and operations (many of his readers pointed out to him that he had never “moved on” simply because he never entertained questioning the logic behind being in Afghanistan in the first place). Other writers joined in and argued that, no, in reality, there has been an absence of robust debate. Lately, Exum has agreed that Bacevich has a point after all — an obvious point I thought — and is calling for discussion of the reasons for being in Afghanistan, even while continuing to evade the question himself.

In the meantime, Morton Abramowitz, writing at Foreign Policy, “Tough Questions Nobody Wants to Ask: It’s time to scrutinize the basic assumptions behind Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan — before it’s too late” (10 August 2009), notes that the discussion deficit has been most prominent in the mainstream mass media itself, which has been so transformed that it cannot even facilitate the basic requirements for such a discussion. Having recently seen CNN’s Christiane Amanpour’s “Generation Islam,” which struck me as celebrity journalism that asks few questions and seems pre-scripted to win approval with the home audience, I can appreciate Abramowitz’s point even more. Abramowitz makes the following points about the media and Afghanistan:

  • “few questions have been asked about the consequences or the morality of the United States urging Pakistan to displace two million in the Swat Valley in order to attack militants using air and artillery”
  • “the American media still has little regular presence in Afghanistan; most well-known columnists visit courtesy of the aircraft of senior American military and diplomatic officials”
  • “the deepening U.S involvement in Afghanistan under the Obama administration is based on assumptions that merit and require more sustained examination by the media, given the vast importance of the enterprise” — and then what I saw as his most critical observation —
  • “mainstream media are constrained by an evolving industry in which traditional investigative journalism is no longer as financially viable. It costs lots of money to keep reporters in Afghanistan. Security is a daunting problem, as New York Times journalist David Rohde found as guest of the Taliban for seven months. Additionally, the investigative journalism of the past inadequately responds to today’s technologies, business models, and audience demands.  The media must cater to an audience that expects instantaneous news feed updates from the Internet, and that does not allow for much in-depth analysis.”

One refreshingly rare exception is offered us by a new news organization, globalpost, based in the U.S., established within the last six months. Having examined each item in its recent, well-written and balanced series, “Life, Death and the Taliban,” I will say “so far, so good.” What follows then is simply a series of notes and snapshots, and commentary from Afghans that is hard to find in the mainstream press, if not altogether absent.


Col. John Agoglia's office desk at the Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, June 2009 - Photo: Seamus Murphy, Global Post

Col. John Agoglia's office desk at the Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, June 2009 - Photo: Seamus Murphy, Global Post

Remember Ahmed Shah Massoud, who almost by virtue of his assassination by Al Qaeda and his war against the Taliban became a “good guy”, so much so that his veneration by a current presidential contender in Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, meets with this line from Foreign Policy “Abdullah’s greatest asset is his close association with the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose handsome, brooding face graces many of Abdullah’s campaign posters”? Here is what we are routinely not told about Massoud, remedied by GlobalPost:

  • as Islamic extremists at Kabul University in the late 1960s, both Ahmed Shah Massoud (future Defence Minister) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (future Prime Minister), threw acid in the faces of women who did not wear the veil (see the timeline here)
  • as Defence Minister, Massoud had Kabul itself shelled (source)

What was life like under the Taliban? See “Life Under the Taliban” for some Afghan voices, for a change:

  • “It was a golden time,” said Nasimi, recalling his teenage years under the Taliban. “There was nothing to distract you — no cinema, no snooker parlors, not too many people on the streets. You could catch your breath.”
  • at the time that they [the Taliban] took over Kabul — in September 1996 — the majority of the capital’s residents hailed them as saviors
  • The Taliban had been in control in the south since 1994, when they chased out the gunmen who had terrorized the population with a direct and vicious violence
  • “We wanted an end to the warlords, and we wanted national unity,” recalled Nasimi. “The Taliban gave us that.”
  • Universities continued to function, although girls were absent from all faculties except medicine
  • a professor of Darwinism was able to keep teaching throughout the period, although he admits his topic was not popular with the Taliban
  • While women did live under severe restrictions, female doctors continued to work, and women street vendors were allowed to peddle their wares — to other women
  • “I was very comfortable under the Taliban,” said Dr. Malalai, a doctor in Mazar-e-Sharif, capital of Balkh province. “I worked part-time, but made enough money for my needs. I could go anywhere, security was not a problem. We did not fear robbery, rape, murder. But now, I work full time and do not make enough money. And if someone offered me a job in one of the outlying districts, I would never go, because of poor security.”
  • “The Taliban did not let us work or go to school, but they did not rape us and they did not kill us,” said Soraya Parlika, a feminist and activist, whose family was prominent in the Communist government.
  • “You would go into a ministry, and you could not tell who was the minister and who was the secretary,” laughed Aziz, a young translator now living in the West. “There were no desks or chairs, they were all sitting on mattresses on the floor. I went to one office to get a document signed, and they were all shooting watermelon seeds at each other.”
  • According to numerous reports from all over the country, a lively society existed just under the surface, carrying on the more secular traditions of Afghan society.

Did the U.S. always oppose the Taliban? “Blowback“:

  • By 1996, the Taliban had taken Kabul, never intending to rule but only to liberate the people from the warlords. At first, even the U.S. State Department under Madeleine Albright supported the movement.
  • “The Taliban served its purpose for Pakistan and the United States. There is a reason the United States was on board with the Taliban as well in the mid-1990s. They wanted to set up the natural gas pipeline and that trading routes would be opened up. They thought, and we thought, the Taliban would be a handy tool … . The Taliban, it was thought, would be under our control,” explained [Pakistani General] Gul, a sarcastic smile sweeping over his face.

How do the Taliban fund their resistance? “Funding the Afghan Taliban Who is financing America’s enemies? You don’t want to know“:

  • In Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country.
  • the fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy
  • “Everyone knows this is going on,” said one U.S. Embassy official, speaking privately.
  • “In the past there was a kind of feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan,” said [U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Richard] Holbrooke, according to media reports. “That is simply not true.”
  • The manager of an Afghan firm with lucrative construction contracts with the U.S. government builds in a minimum of 20 percent for the Taliban in his cost estimates….[he] told friends privately that he makes in the neighborhood of $1 million per month. Out of this, $200,000 is siphoned off for the insurgents.
  • “I was building a bridge,” he said, one evening over drinks. “The local Taliban commander called and said ‘don’t build a bridge there, we’ll have to blow it up.’ I asked him to let me finish the bridge, collect the money — then they could blow it up whenever they wanted. We agreed, and I completed my project.”
  • One contractor in the southern province of Helmand was negotiating with a local supplier for a large shipment of pipes. The pipes had to be brought in from Pakistan, so the supplier tacked on about 30 percent extra for the Taliban, to ensure that the pipes reached Lashkar Gah safely.
  • “This is international money,” said one young Kabul resident. “They are not taking it from the people, they are taking it from their enemy.”

Counterinsurgency practice as misogynist atrocity which almost perfectly confirms what I argued in my article, “In Afghanistan It’s Now All About the Little Girls.” See “War of Ideas” playing divide and rule along gender lines, making schoolgirls the frontline:

  • Education is on the frontline of the war in Afghanistan.
  • Almost daily, girls’ schools are burned and bombed and teachers, principals, students and their families receive what are known as “night letters”

But, in some cases, schools for girls stay open precisely because of the Taliban:

  • “Yeah, it happens in many provinces that the maliks, they go to Taliban and say, ‘We know you have a problem. We know you are going to fight, but we don’t care … . We want our children to be educated. So you help us with that. And in response we let you do what you want, but let our children get an education.'”
  • “The positive aspect is that at least they (the Taliban) are convinced that the girls’ school is important. … If all Taliban agree to this then at least we will have education free of politics. We will be able to establish girls’ schools everywhere in this country. It’s a very positive thing and we will encourage all Talib to do that,” said Wahajir.

And this remorse from an American couple that established a school for girls that was later attacked and some of whose staff were detained without charge at Bagram Air base:

  • “I honestly wish we had never built the school. We put these people at risk. I just don’t know how I am going to get through that,” she said.

Concerning the fact that counterinsurgency practice aims to carry out colonial divide and rule strategies, which could have a long-term impact on ethnic conflict in Afghanistan as has been the history of other colonies — we hear from Colonel Porn’s class (desk shown above) in “Counterinsurgency“:

  • They were discussing the art of divide and conquer and the role it played in the full history of counterinsurgency from ancient Rome to Vietnam.
  • “While in the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar used to do this separate and rule. Here the Afghan people is a mixture of tribes and complex reality. So our attempt is to exploit these differences to achieve our aim, yes? But this place is different, I think the cultures and religions make it very difficult to know which side to trust”
  • The lessons on divide and conquer and other COIN tactics are spelled out in the Army manual authored by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus.

While articles such as these help a little to balance the kind of outright misinformation, myth-making, and selectivity that verges on blindness that shapes the media environment of most North American media consumers, we will have to see what impact they really have. Too many are intent on going to the media with the aim of hearing what they want to hear, and reacting with fury and bluster against anything that goes against their preferred view of themselves. Worse yet, some think that anyone offering different information or holding a different view, should simply be denied a basis for functioning, cast into some form of internal exile (e.g. Ward Churchill, Norman Finkelstein, Joel Kovel, Janice Harper, and a growing list). That’s life in our “democracy.”

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4 thoughts on “Glimpses of What the Mainstream Media Might Have Told Us About Afghanistan

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